Animals have had an enormously positive impact in helping the physically or emotionally disabled. People who for some reason have withdrawn into themselves naturally wish to reach out when introduced to a pet.
Many people wish to enroll their pets in an animal-assisted activity or therapy program but don't know where to begin. As much as you may wish to help, you shouldn't walk into a facility with your pet and ask how you can help. Your pet must be first screened to ensure s/he is healthy and has the right temperament, for the safety of the pet and the people you're trying to help.
You should be aware that some people may inadvertently handle your pet roughly, so it is important that your pet is calm and patient. Although your intentions may be good, you should use common sense in deciding whether your pet is right for a program. They should enjoy the visit as well, so the experience is good for all.
AAA vs. AAT
The best place to start is with defining the difference between animal-assisted activities (AAA) and animal-assisted therapy (AAT). Professionals discourage the term "pet therapy" because it actually refers to animal behavior training programs.
According to the Delta Society, a non-profit organization that encourages the use of companion animals to promote human health, animal-assisted activities are casual meetings between people and pets. There is no "session" between pet and person - activities are spontaneous. Likewise, there are no specific goals for treatment, and notes are not taken. The purpose is to bring a smile and some sunshine into someone's life.
For instance, visiting a nursing home with your pet and allowing residents to touch and pet your dog, without the presence of a doctor or therapist, would be considered an animal-assisted activity.
You should also be aware that these participants do not necessarily have to be a dog or cat. Well-behaved and approved pets such as birds, rabbits and guinea pigs can also be used in some programs.
On the other hand, animal-assisted therapy has a defined goal to treat a problem, and progress is measured carefully. The animal meets specific criteria to achieve that goal under the supervision of a medical professional. The sessions are carefully constructed to meet the treatment goals.
There are a number of organizations that are involved with training human and pet volunteers. The Delta Society is a good place to start. (You don't necessarily have to own or volunteer your pet. You can help organize events, assist setting up workshops and screenings, among other activities.)
You and your pet will undergo training and preparation:
To read about pets that are making a difference, please see the article Meet Four Animals that Make a Difference.